For lunch Hillary Clinton ingested 840 calories, 1.270 milligrams of sodium and 11.5 grams of saturated fat. This was on Monday, April 13, 2015. She had takeout from a Chipotle outside of Toledo, Ohio. A surveillance camera recorded her visit. One day before, she had launched her campaign for the US Presidency.
Where did we get the nutritional data? New York Times writer Kevin Quealy did the research for us. His piece claims that Clinton had the “chicken bowl, white rice, black beans, fresh garden salsa, shredded cheese, lettuce and guacamole.” Using a Chipotle calorie calculator, the journalist computed how Clinton’s order at the slightly upscale fast food restaurant compares to the national average. Apparently, Quealy states, her lunch “was healthier than the average American’s order, with significantly fewer calories, saturated fat and sodium than most […]” He concludes that “75 percent of meals ordered at Chipotle had more calories than Mrs. Clinton’s; about 75 percent had more sodium; and about 70 percent had more saturated fat.”
The Great Hillary Clinton Chipotle Lunch Story, told in approximately 15,000 articles, may turn you into a grumpy Euro-intellectual bemoaning the guacamolean state of American political journalism (see this “Media Matters” piece). Previous generations interpreted the last helicopter out of Saigon or Brandt on his knees in Warsaw. In 2015 reporters tell of Clinton at Chipotle. How she first picked a raspberry something or other, then found out about the ingredients and had an iced tea instead. How she didn’t leave a tip in the tip jar. Journalists asked Jeb Bush to comment and he said something vaguely populist about driving his own car to Chipotle’s and sometimes cooking Mexican at home. Then there was coverage about the coverage. Focusing on Clinton’s lunch instead of addressing significant issues, Jon Stewart lashed the media for focusing on Clinton’s lunch instead of addressing significant issues. The usual postmodern kale shake.
You could blame it all on the Web – and that would start more tweedy intellectual hand-wringing. The coffee house played a significant role in the development of a public sphere. In late 18th century Paris, restaurants were meeting places for the new, post-revolutionary members of the National Assembly. Political ideas emerged from these sites. They functioned as multi-sensory institutions of sociability. They were laboratories of democratic interaction. These days, a celebrity in shades walks up to a counter, picks up food, returns to her van, and thus prompts a gazillion tweets. Some public sphere.
Then again, consuming an unhealthy amount of Clinton-at-Chipotle-stories has a sublime effect as well. Read back to back, in quick succession, the combined pieces turn into a sort of modernist collage à la Dos Passos, a kind of “Chipotle Transfer”. At this fast food counter, wildly different narratives intersect: from the candidate representing American royalty to the fate of journalism to the lives of those ordinary Americans Clinton claims to fight for and forgot to tip. A Politico piece, for instance, investigates what foodies love to ignore: labor – the actual lives of the fast food workers serving Clinton in this specific Ohio location. In spite of what Jon Stewart says, studying one famous lady’s lunch at Chipotle may indeed take you to “the issues.” It just depends on your perspective.
We should worry about the calorie counters, then, rather than about the shredding of Western Civilization. The most depressing “Clinton Gets Mexican”-article by far? Kevin Quealy’s irony-laced nutritional analysis in the New York Times. This calories-sodium-saturated-fat-tell-all seems like a dystopian episode right out of Eggers’ The Circle.
And Quealy’s piece is just one example. In more general terms, the New York Times has turned into the official organ of the fitness police. Consider the paper’s recent feature What 2,000 Calories Look Like. Based on the normalizing premise that “most adults should eat between 1,600 and 2,400 calories per day”, the text-image-sequence features restaurant meals providing a 2,000 one-day calorie intake in just one entrée. The images displaying these sinful products veer between a junior high school student’s concept of installation art and Sixties-style food photography minus the style. Taken out of their restaurant context, the culinary items appear against obscenely colored backgrounds. Captions provide numbers. Lots of numbers. At Shake Shack, the Double ShackBurger (770), fries (470), and the Black and White shake (760) are going to take you to the 2,000 limit. At Potbelly, these items will do the job: an Orange Mango juice (250), a big Italian sandwich with mayonnaise (1,088), chips (220), and a cookie (420) for dessert; at Olive Garden, a salad (150), breadstick (140), the Tour of Italy sampler (1,500), and a “quartino” of wine (230) will do the trick. At the Cheesecake Factory, the Times authors reveal, one dish is enough. Finishing the Louisiana Chicken Pasta rewards you with 2,370 calories.
Yes, there’s something excessive about that pasta dish. But the most excessive feature of this series is the tone the Times strikes: the Puritan obsessiveness of the calorie-counting, the nightmarish arrangement of foods and drinks, the way text and image aim to dragoon the reader toward fitness and away from fatness, and how the sequence completely ignores sociability and pleasure as possible aspects of restaurant visits. It really makes you wish that on April 13, 2015, Hillary Clinton had stopped at Sonic instead of Chipotle. There she should have gotten the “Peanut Butter Caramel Pie Shake”: 2,090 calories in one paper cup. Surely that would have changed the world.